Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Emancipator”

Abraham Lincoln worked his way from a log cabin to the White House, teaching himself law and earning the faith of the electorate through his ability to communicate. Nearly a century and a half after the Civil War, Lincoln’s promise of freedom and unity has been realized, as Americans resoundingly elected their first black president.

Abraham Lincoln’s Early Days

On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky His father, Thomas Lincoln, a frontiersman who farmed for a living, moved the family to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, when Abraham was 7.

When Lincoln was 10 years old, his mother died in the family log cabin. The following year, Thomas Lincoln remarried and Abraham and his sister were raised by their stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston.

Lincoln once wrote of his early surroundings and education, “It was a wild region…Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher…but that was all.” In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail-splitter and store clerk at a local shop and read avidly in order to educate himself.

Eventually, he became involved in the military, serving as a captain in the Black Hawk War. From there, he taught himself law and worked for many years in the Illinois legislature and in circuit courts.

During his early political career, Lincoln married Marry Todd and the couple had four sons, though only one survived to maturity. Despite personal tragedy and a lifelong struggle with depression, Lincoln worked tirelessly. His law partner once called his ambition “a little engine that knew no rest.”

Sources in this Story

Lincoln’s Presidency

In 1858, Lincoln ran for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas. Although he lost, he earned national respect for his rhetorical abilities, which allowed him to run as the presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party in 1860.

During his campaign, Lincoln stressed his long-time opposition to slavery. Although he was not initially a strict abolitionist, he vowed to limit the westward expansion of human ownership. His election worried many southern Democrats who believed that southern agriculture depended on slaves.

When Lincoln was elected, southern states campaigned for secession, citing America’s federalist background and states’ rights. Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union—even at the cost of war. He mustered three million soldiers for the Union army to fight the two million Confederate troops of the South.

During the four-year Civil War, Lincoln exerted more executive authority than any president in history. According to the Miller Center on Public Affairs, “Lincoln assumed extralegal powers over the press, declared martial law in areas where no military action justified it [and] quelled draft riots with armed soldiers.”

To demonstrate that such force was essential to preserving the United States and not the result of personal aspirations, Lincoln refused to call off national elections in 1864. He won a decisive victory.

In some ways, the election was a victory of Union ideals. During his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which called for the freedom of slaves, Lincoln firmly asserted that the Civil War was as much about freedom as it was about states’ unification. As part of the speech, Lincoln urged black slaves to join the Northern forces.

That same year, Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address, at the site of the Civil War’s most decisive battle. In his speech, Lincoln reflected on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality central to the founding of the country and spoke of the Union’s duty to the deceased:

“[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Rest of the Story

In April of 1865, the leader of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee, surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Merely 35,000 troops remained in the Confederate forces.

Five days later, Lincoln and Mary Todd went to see the play, “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater. During the third act, actor and Confederate loyalist John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln with a derringer. The bullet passed through the left side of the president’s brain. Lincoln died the next morning.

After days of national mourning, Lincoln’s body was transported on a funeral train to Springfield, Ill. Along the journey, Americans gathered to pay their last respects to the “Great Emancipator.”

Lincoln Primary Source Collections

Presently the most comprehensive resource for Lincoln primary source material online is the digitized version of “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” an eight-volume set of “correspondence, speeches, and other writings” collected by Roy P. Basler of the Abraham Lincoln Association and published by Rutgers University Press in 1953.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln is an ongoing project by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to collect and create digital images of every document written by or to Lincoln. Only the first of three series of collections is currently complete: the Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln. The project also offers The Lincoln Log, a “daily chronology” of Lincoln’s life that organizes primary source material by date.

Lincoln/Net, the web site of the Northern Illinois University’s Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, features collections of Lincoln’s writings and other primary source material that are sorted by historical themes and periods in Lincoln’s life. The site also has professors providing analysis of Lincoln’s life in textual, audio and video forms.

The Man and His Work

The Library of Congress’ Abraham Lincoln Papers collection holds 20,000 digital images and transcriptions of Lincoln documents, including correspondence, speech drafts and notes. Parts of the collection are highlighted in Mr. Lincoln’s Virtual Library, which also draws from the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, a collection of sheet music about Lincoln. Lastly, the LOC also features poetry written by Lincoln as a young man.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is home to the largest physical collection of Lincoln documents and artifacts. Some of the collection has been digitized and made available through Illinois Legacy Online.

The Illinois State Archives holds 190 digitized documents from Lincoln’s time in Illinois.